Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Robert Durst Confessed

Is confession good for the soul? In the Durst case, it isn't.

On the HBO documentary series, The Jinx, real estate heir Robert Durst—suspected in the murders of his first wife in New York, when she disappeared in 1982, and of his good friend, Susan Berman, in California in 2000, as well as having been acquitted of killing and dismembering a friend in Texas in 2001—“confessed” into a microphone he carried into the bathroom: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Was this really an unintentional confession made in an unguarded moment when he thought he wasn’t being recorded or observed? I don’t think so. People don’t declare themselves guilty of murders out loud in their private moments decades after the crimes. They just don’t.

Durst made his statement at the very end of the six-part series, when the crew—including particularly the director and co-producer, Andrew Jarecki, with whom Durst had become friendly—was packing up to leave Durst’s life forever.

In fact, Durst was anxious to create this relationship with the documentary-makers (including, along with Jarecki, coproducer Marc Smerling). In 2010 Jarecki and Smerling had made a lightly fictionalized account of the Durst saga, titled All Good Things, based on which Durst contacted the men.

What do you think Durst’s lawyer’s reaction was to the idea of his filming a detailed documentary with the filmmakers? And why do you think Durst disregarded that urgent, obvious legal advice?

Because a lawyer would want to keep Durst from being charged with—and possibly convicted of—murder. But Durst had different motives. He wanted to discuss his life and crimes.

You see, 71-year-old Durst doesn’t have much to occupy him. Although he inherited money from his family, he was shut out of the family’s multimillion-dollar New York real estate empire, as a result of which he sued his younger brother, Douglas, who ran the business.

Robert Durst had no other work or career. And it is hard to avoid making the joke that Durst didn’t have many friends because they so often ended up dead. Durst lived a purposeless, vagabond existence. He ended up, apparently randomly, in Galveston, where he befriended the man who lived across the hall from his nondescript residence—the nieghbor Durst was charged with killing and cutting into little pieces.

So, in a strange way, Durst’s greatest life accomplishments were these alleged murders. What else did he have to turn to in highlighting his life’s work? (In this, he resembles the wealthy murderer, John du Pont, as portrayed by Steve Carell in the 2014 film Foxcatcher.) Still, this didn’t mean he expected to end up in prison. As he said in an interview, “It’s so long ago. Some D.A. would have to commence a budget-busting investigation. I don’t see that happening.”

But it now seems as if it will. Durst was arrested and arraigned in New Orleans for Berman’s murder on the same day, Sunday, that the final episode of The Jinx was shown.

People’s desire to call attention to murders they have committed is the stuff of fiction throughout history. In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the killer is driven mad by his guilt, causing him to reveal his crime. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov eventually confesses, it seems, because it was good for his soul. Indeed, “Confession is good for the soul” was the mantra Kyra Sedgwick recited on every episode of her TNT crime series, The Closer.

And, so, in order to perpetuate his relevance and notoriety, in order to justify his existence, and perhaps to clear his conscience (a motive I find to be distinctly in third place), Robert Durst took a series of actions that could end up with his spending the rest of his life in prison.

But, it seems that for Durst, now in his 70s and sickly, it may be worth it.

Stanton Peele has been at the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program for addiction. His recent book, written (with Ilse Thompson), is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. He can be found online on Facebook and Twitter.